By Jamie Haase, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
In September 2006, Mexico’s president-elect, Felipe Calderon, was anxiously waiting for December to roll around. His soon-to-be Christmas gift would come in the form of taking the reins from President Vicente Fox and launching an all-out offensive against the country’s drug cartels. But until then, his hands were tied, and he could only watch as drug traffickers continued to shred his country apart.
Calderon’s home state of Michoacán was especially under siege at the time. During that same month of September, members of La Familia Michoacán had entered a small-town nightclub and rolled the severed heads of five of their rivals onto the dance floor, marking the beginning of Mexico’s Decapitation Era. La Familia was laying claim to the region, yet Calderon could do nothing but wait as the calendar days slowly went by.
Today, six years and 60,000 deaths later, new president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto finds himself in the same boat Calderon once occupied. With Mexico’s current reputation for violence and with tourism revenues tanking more and more each day, surely plans are in motion for deploying a new strategy this time around. With so much carnage in such little time, what more is needed to prove that the laws of supply and demand cannot be broken?
I might be taking a different tone if the violence had at least stalled during Calderon’s administration, but all indications suggest it hasn’t even peaked yet. So far, 2012 is on track to be the deadliest year yet, and there are no signs of the savagery slowing down anytime soon, as is illustrated by the decapitations of seven family members (including four young children) just this past weekend in Veracruz.
While war rages in Mexico, Americans continue to turn their heads from it. As a former special agent with the feds who worked along the Rio Grande, one of my main goals now as a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is to help reverse the apathy with which Americans regard the violence across our southern border. Much of our shared territory with Mexico is desolate, rugged, unforgiving and unsecured. With the most vicious killers imaginable freely crossing the 2,000-mile-long boundary daily, America has become littered with runaway criminals as a result of the drug war. And choosing not to recognize this migration won’t diminish the reality of the lasting effects it will have for us here in the United States.
A question I’m often asked is how legalizing drugs, especially marijuana, will change any of this. My response is that it’s the very illicitness of the drug trade that’s responsible for creating these criminals. Without the profitability from trafficking drugs, cartels would be largely nonexistent, and Mexico would have far fewer chainsaw-toting psychos cutting people up for a living. Of course, other organized crime activities like kidnapping and extortion won’t be eliminated overnight (as I’m often reminded), but with drugs and the profits they bring off the table, law enforcement could reckon with these crimes much more efficiently.
In my mid-thirties now, after having grown up in the FBI-and DEA-infested town of Quantico, Virginia, it seems like only yesterday when violence from the Colombian cocaine trade ruled the day. Miami’s cocaine cowboy era was a little before my time, but I certainly recall seeing the fall of Pablo Escobar and his relentless Medellin Cartel, only to watch the rise of the more diplomatic Cali Cartel soon thereafter. My original federal employer, the U.S. Customs Service, would later be instrumental in dismantling the Cali Cartel (via interdiction efforts like Operation Cornerstone in South Florida and the Caribbean). But foolishly targeting Colombian traffickers only opened the door for Mexican traffickers, and moved this unwinnable war even closer to our home front.
An historic interview explaining this shift in drug supply from South America to Mexico took place this week at the notorious Altiplano prison. Miguel Felix Gallardo, often referred to as Mexico’s original El Padrino, or Godfather, answered questions about the history of the drug trade (along with the futilities of policing against it). Gallardo was the primary founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, and upon his arrest in 1989, the organization splintered into the rival cartels witnessed in Mexico today. Several present day capos like Joaquin Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers honed their skills under the tutelage of El Padrino.
Until drug policy in the United States changes, all we can do is sit back and watch as spillover violence continues to seep across our border. Since polls show that a majority of Americans are now onboard with regulating marijuana like we currently regulate alcohol, I personally believe that’s where the most immediate efforts for drug reform need to be made. If we can get cannabis legalized and regulated, it will not only take much of the wind from the cartels’ sails, but it will also deplete their bank accounts by at least half. From my experience speaking on behalf of LEAP, I know there is a widespread misconception about just how valuable marijuana is to drug traffickers south of the border. But marijuana smuggling made the cartels what they are today, and the crop will forever be their numero uno cash cow. Harder drugs are just the icing on the cake.
Later this week, I plan to post more about the misconceptions surrounding Mexican “brick weed,” along with details of the cat-and-mouse games being played out right now along the Southwest border.